History As Fiction: A Balancing Act, by Diane Lee Wilson
Writers of historical fiction walk a tightrope between accuracy and entertainment, ever seeking balance between the two. It’s a precarious act. Lean too far toward the side of absolute, down-to-the-last-detail accuracy and you risk producing the sort of stale textbook that bores students in history class. But lean too far to the other side in creating a novel of historical fiction, one that plays fast and loose with the facts, and your account loses all credibility. A reader has picked up your book, after all, to read historical fiction and they’re no doubt presuming you’ll present history accurately. So where’s the balance?
Historical fiction begins, of course, with actual events, and these provide a framework on which to hang a story. I find they serve as guideposts too, helping me push the story forward because I know, for example, that I have to get my protagonist from this geographical point to that momentous event in a specific number of days.
But as I’m moving my character along, particulars crucial to daily life demand description. How does an individual start a fire in Norway 868? Mongolia 1281? Boston 1872? Does Viking clothing have pockets? Does a nomad on the steppes pause for a mid-day meal?
I can often write around a fact that can’t be verified—making no mention of lunch or pockets and stating simply “he started a fire” without explaining how. But for me, digging out those details adds spice to the narrative. How people lived in different eras is part of what’s interesting to this genre.
And there’s that key word: interesting. The person reading this work of historical fiction is expecting to be entertained. So how far do you massage the truth in the name of entertainment? Well, I try to keep it within the realm of “reasonably could have happened.” A mixed race boy could have passed as white and ended up riding for the Pony Express. A Viking girl of extraordinary character could have led her clan since she was the chieftain’s daughter. A young Mongol could have bravely confronted Kublai Khan face-to-face, and by finding a human connection, saved her neck. It’s a continual judgment call and one that keeps the reader’s interest at the fore.
A great liberation for me as a writer of historical fiction came upon finding Stephen King’s comments concerning research in his book On Writing: “…don’t end up with the tail wagging the dog; remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first.” The timing of that advice could not have been better because I was nearly finished with my novel Firehorse, which takes place in Boston in 1872 but, as is my habit, still poking around libraries and used book stores and the Internet for curiosities. In this instance, unfortunately, I stumbled across an academic website listing the addresses and occupations of everyone who’d lived within a certain Boston neighborhood in the 1870s, a neighborhood I’d already populated with my own fictional characters. What to do? Well, as much as I’m a perfectionist, I had to decide that my account of the events of that year was truthful and by that time complete and that this latest information—even assuming it was accurate (and secretly hoping it contained enough errors to permit my characters to take up residence)—wouldn’t affect the outcome. I would have loved to have confirmed the veracity of the website’s data and perhaps moved my characters down the street but I’ve also learned that there comes a time when a story is done; it’s been created to the best of your abilities and you have to let it go and begin another.
Let me state again that I’m adamant about historical accuracy but I strongly believe that writing historical fiction is ultimately about telling a good story. The most satisfying reviews I receive are when critics comment “meticulously researched” and readers say “couldn’t put it down.” For me, that’s the perfect balance.